Education and Design

Last year I enrolled in a Digital Media program at the UofC. I am always looking to upgrade my skills and knowledge informally, but decided to take a more formal plunge with my design skills (or lack of them) because of a strong belief I’ve developed in the growing relationship between design and education.

Recently I’ve been able to understand and articulate how I understand this relationship a bit more (although not completely, yet).

Over the past few years I’ve noticed design people talking about the fragmentation of their industry – design comes in so many different forms now (graphic, UX, UI, etc etc), and one of the points that design industry workers seem to be making when they bring this point up is that employers do not need to keep creating job positions based on all of these different divisions between these design areas. They need to hire people who are capable of recognizing these divisions and completing their tasks accordingly. People also need to develop accordingly.

And this makes sense to me. A project generally requires a grand vision of what that project will end up as. This isn’t always easy, or time efficient, to communicate. Why bother with a graphic designer AND a design writer and a UX designer, when one person can do that job. The more people involved, the more chances that miscommunication will occur.

This is what I’ve seen happen in education. Institutions are trying to adapt to digital environments, but they’re getting bogged down not only in the number of jobs they’re needing to create, but in the lack of knowledge about design mechanics and timelines. Online course are difficult to plan, for example, because the planners don’t speak the same language as the designers.

Ok, but why is design even important to education?

First of all, what I’ve recently realized is that the natural bridge between the larger industry of design and the larger industry of education is located between Information Design and Instructional Design. On the big poster that maps out all the fragmentations of design (or, of education) these two are right beside each other.

The other point to make is that education, more specifically online learning or digital environments (where I work), now includes an incredible amount of nuance in communication. I think you see this point made many places. We talk of digital literacies not literacy now, and even the definition of the word literacy has changed in the course of my lifetime, I would argue.

In this world where the digital message surrounds us, unlike how the printed word merely directs us, I would also say that we can now start to talk more specifically about rhetorics. Not the sense of rhetoric that is inherently negative, not the way that the word is thrown around to describe a politician dodging an important question. Rather, rhetoric in the way that Richard Lanham describes in The Electronic Word – as a way to be able to say what you want to say effectively. Design speaks to the rhetoric of a given literacy, the quality of our ability to communicate a thought with respect to that form of communication.

Educators don’t know which literacies students are going to bring with them into our classrooms. It’s increasingly difficult and unrealistic for institutions to expect learners to build their literacies specific for that particular institution. Educators need vast literacies and strong rhetorics to make edtech decisions and to create clear, effective, and apt instruction. In the least, educators are models for learners (especially so for language and culture, where I also work), making explicit the ways in which they adapt their own communication within the teacher/learner relationship.

The design skills that anyone may or may not have will be a determining factor in the ability to communicate in a digital environment, and thus determine such things like quality of courses, course design, teacher and institution communication, and for learners it will determine the quality of participation in an online class and even the degree of access to that information/instruction.

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